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Sea Swap Sailors Return Home

Story Number: NNS030207-19


By Journalist 1st Class Daniel J. Calderón, Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (NNS) -- It's a rare occurrence for a ship's commanding officer to return home without his ship. But that's what recently happened with USS Fletcher (DD 992) and its commanding officer, Cmdr. Thomas C. Neal.

Neal and his crew returned home Jan. 31 aboard an airplane, while Fletcher remained on station with a new crew.

The shipless homecoming was due to the Navy's Sea Swap Initiative, which rotates three crews through a single ship. This allows the ship to remain forward-deployed for 18 months before returning to home port.

The purpose of the Sea Swap program is to increase the time ships can remain on station during a period when Navy forces are being stretched thin by growing operational requirements. By flying crews to the ship, the Navy can save weeks of transit time and millions of dollars in fuel.

Fletcher's crew landed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay to the excited cheers of family and friends.

"It feels good being here," said Ata Kaleopa. His older sister, Storekeeper 2nd Class Fesovaina Kaleopa was one of the returning Sailors. "I'm happy to have her come back, and so is all her family. I brought her 5-year-old daughter here, and she can't wait to see her mom."

This was Kaleopa's third deployment. Other Sailors returned home from their very first six-month stretch at sea.

Engineman 3rd Class Richard Wagner's wife, Paula, was at the hangar when he and his shipmates arrived.

"I want him here," she said, as the plane was coming in. "I was kind of looking forward to the 'pier thing.' This is the first time he's been gone for six months, and I was worried that [the crew] might have had to stay out even longer."

The deployment was busy for Fletcher's crew. During the first five months of the deployment, the ship spent much of its time in the Arabian Gulf. The crew conducted numerous missions in support of Operations Enduring Freedom/Southern Watch and maritime interception operations, enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

During that time, they boarded 178 suspect vessels, served as the flagship for two Royal Australian Navy commodores who were assigned as maritime interdiction operations (MIO) commander, worked with U.S. Navy special warfare teams, Polish special forces, U.S. Coast Guard tactical law enforcement teams, British, Australian, Polish, Greek, Canadian, Kuwaiti and Japanese navies.

After departing the Arabian Gulf, the crew made a brief stop in Diego Garcia before crew and ship separated in Fremantle, Australia.

In Fremantle, the crew turned over Fletcher to the crew of the former USS Kinkaid (DD 965). Fletcher will continue on deployment for another year, first with Kincaid's crew and finally with the crew of USS Oldendorf (DD 972).

Meanwhile, the Pearl Harbor-based Fletcher crew will disband over the next two months, with Sailors moving on to their next assignments.

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